Kraken make big splash with signings of Brandon Montour, Chandler Stephenson

Arguably the most aggressive day in Kraken history ended with them committing nearly $94 million for a pair of 30-year-old free agents they hope can vault them back into playoff contender status.

The seven-year deals handed to Florida Panthers right-handed defenseman Brandon Montour and Vegas Golden Knights centerman Chandler Stephenson at Monday’s onset of NHL free agency signaled the Kraken are focusing as much on the present as the future to grow their standing within a crowded local sports landscape.

Both contracts were a year longer than general manager Ron Francis had ever paid out in his seven seasons running either the Kraken or the Carolina Hurricanes prior and they immediately transform the team’s outlook.

“It just goes to show that players want to come to Seattle, they want to play in this organization, and they want to play in front of our great fans,” Francis told local media members following the deals, which bring the NHL’s most coveted free-agent defender to town in the offensively gifted Montour and a potential top-line centerman in Stephenson to go with Matty Beniers, Shane Wright and Yanni Gourde.

“Ownership, from day one we’ve had the green light to spend to the (salary) cap (limit), and they want to compete, and they want to win,” Francis said. “That’s always been our plan here. We try to manage our cap as well as we can. And we got to the point this year where we felt these were two players that we needed in our lineup to help us be successful.”

Both have won Stanley Cups; Montour with Florida just last week and Stephenson with Vegas a year ago and Washington in 2018 when he helped beat the Golden Knights — becoming the eighth player in NHL history to win a Cup with one team after defeating that same squad for a title with another.

Montour will receive an average of $7.14 million annually while Stephenson gets $6.25 million. Francis said the moves likely conclude his major summer upgrades and should fit within salary cap parameters without the shedding of current Kraken players in trades.

The NHL last month raised the salary cap limit from $83.5 million to $88 million for next season after it remained relatively flat for years through the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. That’s thought to have sparked Monday’s early and unprecedented stampede by teams to ink top free agents — most of which, including Montour, came off the board within minutes of the 9 a.m. PT opening of signing eligibility.

Most expect the league to keep increasing the cap threshold by a significant amount the next few seasons, leaving Francis more comfortable about signing top players to longer deals. Francis added that Montour and Stephenson both being strong skaters should help their production age better than others in their 30s.

The Kraken are still in talks with restricted free agents Beniers and Eeli Tolvanen, as the final main deals the team will make this offseason. The CapFriendly website estimates the Kraken with $9.26 million of space to accommodate those signings.

“Depending on where those come in, we’ll review where our cap is at,” Francis said. “But we’ve looked at a lot of different scenarios and we feel comfortable that we will be under the cap and ready to go when the season starts.”

Montour said in a conference call Monday that “family” weighed heavily on his joining the Kraken as he and his wife have an infant son and also a baby daughter on the way next year.

“Talking with Ron (Francis) and players, we had some really good calls and I think that’s what [the Kraken] have there,” Montour said of a family feel. “And it’s not just the players in the locker room. It’s the staff, the management … I really feel like [they] have that good connection with the players, and everybody has that love for one another within the locker room.”

Montour is also excited about “high-end prospects” coming up the Kraken’s pipeline and relishes trying to bring a Cup to a market that’s never won one after doing just that with Florida last week. “Obviously, there are a lot of players on that team that have won and been on some winning teams,” Montour said of the Kraken. “But for myself, I’ve been to the finals the last two years in a row and played meaningful, meaningful hockey games.”

He said that his “competitiveness” as a “complete, two-way defender” is what fans should notice most about his game.

Kraken players greeted the deals with enthusiasm.

“It’s a huge moment for us,” alternate captain Jordan Eberle said. “Obviously, it’s pretty exciting. It shows a commitment to winning and adding guys.”

Stephenson played his junior hockey with the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League, starting the year after fellow Saskatchewan native Eberle left that team to turn professional.

“We definitely got better today,” Eberle said.

Yanni Gourde, another Kraken alternate captain, said he’s “super excited” to have both players.

“I think it’s huge for the team,” Gourde said. “Two great players, both Stanley Cup champions. They know what it takes to win.”

Gourde added that fellow centerman Stephenson is “a great center” with tremendous speed and “plays great on both sides of the puck.”

Francis at his media session had singled out the offensive and defensive components to both players. The Kraken needed more offense, having finished with a fourth-worst 2.61 goals per game total last season.

Montour had eight goals and 25 assists in 66 games for the Panthers last season and added 11 more playoff points. He led all Panthers in ice time, averaging 23 minutes, 37 seconds per contest with ample power play and penalty kill work. The prior season, he had 16 goals and 57 assists in ranking as one of the league’s top defensive point-getters.

His addition alongside offensive-minded Kraken defender Vince Dunn and with Ryker Evans in the mix provides a broader power play look and potentially one of the NHL’s more potent blue line corps off the rush. It also again balances out the defense’s right-left handedness following the free agent departure of Justin Schultz — with right-handers Montour, Adam Larsson and Will Borgen available on all three pairings to match with left-handed shots Dunn, Jamie Oleksiak, Evans and Brian Dumoulin.

Right-handed shot defenders are a rarer NHL commodity than left-handers.

Stephenson had been a key Vegas component for six seasons, winning a Stanley Cup last year over Montour’s team while scoring 16 goals and adding 35 assists this past season.

His career faceoff percentage of 52.6% instantly puts him among the best Kraken players in a category of longstanding team weakness.

Stephenson’s signing also allows franchise scoring leader Jared McCann to slide back to his more familiar left wing spot. He’d been playing center after the Kraken traded Alex Wennberg to the New York Rangers back in March.

Francis hopes the additions turn the tide for a Kraken team that missed the playoffs with the NHL’s eighth-worst record.

“Two years ago we were one of the best teams offensively and last year we were one of the worst,” Francis said. “The truth is, we’re probably somewhere in between. So, we’re going to find out where that is.”

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